Arts: What the butler never saw

Joe Orton's lost works reveal a taste for the bizarre in the banal
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Acertain 20th century dramatist invented the following titles for works projected but never written: By the Short Hairs; Gwen, Maddened by Lust; The Four-Letter Word Revue and Men and Boys? Mmm, I think we can certainly rule out Enid Bagnold. A more generous clue would be to quote some of the exchanges intended for insertion in such future pieces: "Are you a good boy?" "Yes." "Why are you wasting my time then?" And: "Anyone over 40 is led to believe that the younger generation are sexually insatiable. Isn't this true?" "No, sir." "Another cherished belief exploded. The iconoclasm of today's youth is terrifying."

Values stood on their heads; the formal, epigrammatic style lending incongruous sonority to louche, subversive sentiments; the author can only be that so-called "Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility", Joe Orton.

The might-have-beens are particularly frustrating in his case because his career was cut off in its prime. From his break through in 1964 with Entertaining Mr Sloane to his savage murder by lover Kenneth Halliwell, Orton enjoyed just three years of success. The apogee came with the 1966 Evening Standard Best Play Award for Loot - the gleefully scandalous farce involving a coffin, a corpse, a pile of stolen bank notes, a couple of lustful bisexuals and a psychopathically corrupt copper - which transfers tonight to the West End in David Grindley's much-praised Chichester revival.

Posthumous publication and performance have made us familiar with the output of Orton's extremely fertile last few months (What the Butler Saw, the Beatles' screen play, Up Against It, the creepily unblinking Diaries). But what about the work he produced at the other end of his writing life - that decade of rejection slips when he laboured on five Firbankian novels with Halliwell and then on independent fiction and plays?

In October, new light will be thrown on this period of his creativity with the first publication of a 1957 novel, Between Us Girls, along with his first, full -length drama, Fred and Madge (1959) and The Visitors (1961), a play set in a hospital. What do we learn from these pieces about the early development of the "Ortonesque"?

Slight, camp, and inconsequential, Between Us Girls is the diary of an aspiring starlet, Susan Hope, whose optimistic prattle signals a determined refusal to acknowledge the tackiness of her lot. Using language as a prim disguise for depraved conduct or circumstances is a marked habit of the characters in Orton's mature work. The more outrageous the behaviour, the more studied the verbal pretence of propriety - and the worse the overall impression.

In Between Us Girls, Susan is given her break at Soho's Rainier Revuebar, and is righteously put out when a friend dares to suggest that this launch pad is something less than the Old Vic. Leaving that establishment for what she has been led to believe is a three year contract with an exotic Mexican night-club, she clings to the romantic fantasy ("It's like a dream, isn't it?") until disabused by a fellow newcomer who remembers having seen their surroundings in a film about the white slave trade. Whereupon Susan veers into an evasive girlishness, preternaturally coy and placid for one who has just discovered she's imprisoned in a brothel: "We sat quite still, each one thinking her own thoughts. The doves cooed. The breeze ruffled the water. And I remembered - so many little things".

With the two soon-to-be-published plays, it's the difference in manner that is striking. The Visitors is naturalistic, often seeming to give you a foretaste of Alan Bennett in its ear for the bizarre in the banal: "He had a few words with Sister on Friday. On Saturday he was dead. You can't put it plainer than that," declares the sick old man, Kemp, whose bullyingly cheerful daughter bans (a la Kath in Sloane) the least allusion to unpleasantness during her visits.

Fred and Madge, by contrast, starts off in an absurdist, self-consciously theatrical world where the deadening routines of proletarian Labour are symbolised by Madge's proud work trying to carry water in a sieve and Fred's Sisyphean chore of rolling boulders up a ramp. The play then swerves into increasingly fantastical territory, courtesy of Lewis Carroll and Firbank, with England finally abandoned for India, but not before Fred has destroyed modern British architecture by taking groups out to laugh at it (cue crashing masonry) or before Fred's gardener-father develops belated and bewildering green fingers and buries the country in forest.

In a mature work like Loot, the relationships have to be played for real, the violence must shock and the homosexuality feel utterly natural. At the same time, you need a stylised setting and a heightened reality in the performances to allow for the strong, simultaneous sense that Loot is a parodic meta-play. An intriguing glimpse of Ortonesque anarchy without the reality, Fred and Madge also furnishes an exchange that could be the epigraph to his whole radically subversive oeuvre: "Do you want to ruin society and civilisation with your laughter?" "Yes, oh yes."

'Loot' is at the Vaudeville until Oct 17 (0171 836 9987)

On 10 October, Nick Hern Books publish 'Between Us Girls' (hardback pounds 14.99) and 'Fred and Madge' and 'The Visitors' (hardback pounds 12.99, paperback pounds 7.99)

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